FEBRUARY 1999 Part 1
Another month, another pointless redesign. They just get more and more spare, I know - but each time I visit a web site cluttered with a billion pictures, or spattered with tiny-type links no ever uses (those who can, do; those who can't, link) I get new resolve to pare this thing down to bones. Fast bones. The rest of the site is unchanged - I'm not about to rip everything up every 30 days. But I figure, if I'm sick of the page, other people are sick of the page.
This new look does away with the NEW box, so make sure to check the link at the bottom of the page - it will take you to whatever kludgy addition I've posted this week.

Super Bowl Sunday: yawn. Not a thrilling game, what I saw of it. All that money, all that hoopla, pyrotechnics, build-up and hype, and what I remember most are two frogs whapping their tongues at Larry the Lizard in a Bud commercial. Great ad. I still won't buy Bud.

Saw "The Truman Show" Saturday, which I enjoyed immensely - glad I saw it after the hype had crested and peaked and a muttering backlash had set in. Expectations were pitched just right. No noise present about Jim Carrey's Breakthrough Performance - he was good in the role, meaning he was 63 percent less annoying than usual, and for once his mannerisms - properly corralled - were in sync with the tone of the world he inhabited. Mostly I enjoyed it simply because it was different - no guns, no fireballs, no last-second leaps. It assumed a certain intelligence in the audience and didn't flatter them for having it. If I were king of the forest, I'd have shot it with a little less of a sense of distance, but there's a reason I'm not a famous director, and Peter Weir is.

We'd intended to see Shakespeare in Love, but it was sold out. That left Stepmom - nix. Patch Adams - double nix. Robin Williams gives me the hives nowadays. Plus, he's one of those right-thinking Hollywood bazillionaires who I always see at benefits for politicians who will never, ever give me a tax cut. Okay, then, Robin: you don't get any of my money. Of course, it's not an equal proposition - I don't contribute money to pols who want to use the force of government to confiscate Mr. William's property. Grrr. I mean, Robin Williams blew more on blow in a year than I make in ten. But should Steve Forbes run for president on a flat-rate tax campaign, Robin will be out there making fun of him for being a boring, pudding-faced rich guy, and the audience will issue peals of self-congradulatory laughter: why, we're agreeing with the charismatic millionaire who's cuter than the boring millionaire! That must make us better people. See, Robin Williams plays characters who Care, who tilt their head a few degrees to the side and smile lovingly; ergo he is a better man than some blank-eyed fellow who might want to give me a tax break so I can afford to hire someone to finish the basement, thereby giving that worker the money to buy a DVD player so he can rent Robin Williams movies.
So, no Patch Adams.
Plus, I hate doctor movies.

Good Saturday - did the Diner, which went by in a blur. The Dark Chef was tired, and I was - well, I had a big list of things with which to start the show, and every single one flew out of my head as I started, and off the show went in a completely unexpected direction. I had planned a light-rail rant; a couple of the hosts on the station over the last week had repeated the fact from a Reason magazine article that the cities with the biggest mass-transit systems have the worst congestion - ergo, mass transit doesn't work. Well, no. The fact is true but the inference is wrong. New York would be worse without mass-transit, as would DC. Mass-transit is necessary in compacted, dense cities. But it won't work here.

No, amend that. It could. If you ran rails into the blighted areas of South Minneapolis, zoned for commercial every six blocks, and gave people gargantuan incentives to rehab the old houses, yes, it would have a salutary effect on the inner city. It would also drive out the people who live there now. Gentrification saves neighborhoods from decrepitude, but just moves the problem elsewhere. We should have built subways 70 years ago.

Rain. It would be a good March day, but in February you just know it's going to freeze. But I took advantage of the thaw to chop and chip the ice from the stairs - it's a miracle the front lawn isn't strewn with groaning mailmen and paperboys, since it's as slick as a rink that's been freshly Zambonied. Hacking the ice is a bone-bruising job - each blow of the shovel goes right up the forearm and explodes in the elbow, and you feel like a cartoon character vibrating and floating backwards after having swung an axe at a steel beam. I hacked out a path and left it at that.
Zamboni isn't a verb, but probably should be. I drove one once, for a TV show. Big snorting beast, like a pregnant elephant on skates. I had to point it through a tunnel so low I had to duck to avoid decapitation; once on the ice, I pointed it at a corner of the rink and turned around to flip the switches - lower the blade, start the water - and then I looked forward again, hoping by now I wasn't a yard from the boards. It was fun, really. One of those things I'm glad I did. It's on film somewhere in the archives of the U of M, and I hope I never see it; I probably did a horrible job, and I'd like to believe otherwise.

Office productivity stopped dead today as everyone played the Magic Card Trick on the web. A story in the competition paper highlighted a few web sites where you can see Actual Magic - you look at five cards, pick one, and then the computer gives you four cards with your choice removed. It - is - spooky. People's reaction was uniform: they backed away from the computer. They all had their own private reasons to distrust the computer anyway, for mulishness, erratic performance, general cluster-fargin' contrusion, but this . . . a whole new level of spookiness. I did it six times, and every time the card I chose was correctly selected. I looked at the source code, expecting some sleight-of-hand enabler, some HTML version of long sleeves in which the card could be hid, but the pages were performing while wearing a tank top. Then a co-worker wondered why it showed you the four cards you didn't chose instead of the one that you did, and I thought: ah hah. And then I figured it out. Clever trick.

The Microsoft Phone continues to perplex. Last night I told my wife to call her folks by pressing Voice Command and saying "Call Sara's Parents," but it dialed a local number. Damn! I misprogrammed it. So I ran upstairs and checked - no, I'd entered everything correctly. Try it again: same thing.

"I don't trust it now," she said.

"No!" I said. "You have to trust the phone."

"I don't."

"Please trust the phone, honey."

I got home today and turned it on to make a call. It was dead. No lights, no beep. So I put it back in its Borg chamber to recharge, and there it sat happily drinking juice until someone called. It announced their name, as it likes to do, and used the irritating Caller ID fashion of last name first, first name last. I picked up and said Hi, Bill, and Bill's reaction told me something I had realized but forgotten: people don't like it when you pick up the phone with foreknowledge that it's you. They don't like it when you say their name upon picking up. It's like showing off your super powers. I have X-ray vision! There's a nodule in your kidney! Ha ha.

Well, time to finish the Newhouse column. I filed a book review today, and will do another column tomorrow, and then it's another thrilling night of backing up and scanning. But at least I have something to look forward to tomorrow: walking out of the house onto the frozen rain, and falling right on my tailbone. Someone has to before the year is out.

I'd better make this fast. I have a few moments here while my wife walks the dog - afterwards, I will be called to Rope Duty. It's imprinted in the beast's mind: after the walk there MUST be tug-of-war, and wherever I am in the house, he'll find me. He lives for this daily interval - the romp in the park and combat with Boss, followed by a Frosty Paws dog treat. In ten minutes or so I'll hear the skittering of claws on the floor as he comes to get me. It's astonishing that a man as sharp as Descartes would not allow dogs a will, or individuality - I suppose the theories of the time made it necessary for animals to be just meat-filled automatons. But no one who has spent any time with dogs can think otherwise.
Just as bad, however, is seeing dogs as doltish hairy mini-humans. I've been collecting pictures for the upcoming Dogs in The News website, and there are dozens of shots from the 40s and 50s of dogs performing human actions - watching TV, playing cards, etc. Stupid. There's one series of photos about - ha ha - an alcoholic dog in Britain who simply must have his daily pint. The picture shows the dog lapping up the sauce, and another picture shows the dog apparently passed out, paws over its muzzle. Ha ha! The caption made me wince: it said the dog needs a couple of aspirin every morning to cure the hangover. Aspirin can be fatal for dogs. Morons.
Some of the folders I hated to examine: DOGS - LOST. DOGS - ACCIDENT. DOGS - DEAD. The Lost folder had pictures of reunited packs, usually with a freckled beaming kid getting his face licked. But the dead-dog folder was devoted entirely to live dogs standing guard over dead dog friends. As I've said before, there's something wrong with me: I can read a metro story about a guy who clubs his drinking partner senseless, and it doesn't jar my heart a jot, but a photo of a dog curled around the lifeless body of his pack partner makes me blubber, and I have to put it away.
Why all the dog thoughts tonight? Probably because I began the morning with a howl. The alarm goes off - beep beep beep - and Jasper, who by now has settled into the warm depression in the mattress vacated by my wife, starts to howl. So I howl with him. Aah-ouu.

Got to work, wrote the column, got a call: the interview with James Ellroy is set for the Feb 13th Diner show. That's a relief. Should be fun. I don't do authors on the show as a rule, although if I did the show daily I'd have plenty writers on the program; they're guaranteed time-fillers. Ellroy, however, is my favorite contemporary writer, and about the only author of his caliber I can think of who's spend each book reducing his style down and down and down until each paragraph feels like a mouthful of BBs. He absolutely has - to - write, and that's one of the things I admire about him.
I understand that need, even though it's slackened off for me. I've always had to force myself to write, but only in the sense that one has to force themselves to have dessert - i.e., you have to get up and fetch it from the fridge, get the fork and plate, after which the rest is pure pleasure. The reason I'm making my living at this has everything to do with habits I developed in college. No sitting around waiting for inspiration. If the muse doesn't come you swing the lasso in ever-widening circles until you grab that wraith by the throat and haul her in. GOTTA WRITE! I used to sing to friends, aping wide-grinned Gene Kelly's gotta-dance bit from "Singin' in the Rain." It's so easy to not write and still think you're a writer, because at any moment now, why, you could write. You could write later. You could write tomorrow. But every night I sat down at 9 PM with a cup of coffee and wrote until 11:30 or so, after which I played pinball. What I wrote was mostly dreck, and for that matter what I write now after that hour is mostly these loose indulgent bloviating epistles, but it keeps the hand in.

I think the Bleat will come to an end, eventually; if I ever grab hold of a novel idea and find myself hauled across that glass-strewn floor again, I'll have to give up these nightly dispatches. That moment may come soon - I've been playing around with Mill City Blues, the 40s newspaper novel at which I've been picking for a year - but on the other hand, I'm enjoying this site too much. The Gallery is nearly done. The Minneapolis project is mostly finished for a while. Fargo 1950 will be done next summer; Dogs In the News will take two days, tops; I got an idea to a site devoted to the Mary Tyler Moore show (then & now views of the opening credit sequence) that might be fun. These sites are like short stories, and they're more fun to do than anything. But I have to do another book, soon, before -

Ah. The door; the clickety nails - the dog has found me and is barking his head off: PLAY! NOW! And so I will.

I'm a bad, bad mayor. I'm playing SimCity 3000, and I am deprived of my usual mode d'emploi - which is to say, I don't know how to cheat yet. I get frustrated when I have to play the game according to the sim rules, because my cities end up messy, disorganized, deep in debt, wracked with crime, full of shanties and bitching citizens. At which point I send plagues down on their UNGRATEFUL heads, wipe out the city, and start again.
The last words in the Book of Revelation, taken out because the ancient scholars didn't understand, are probably DO YOU WANT TO SAVE YOUR UNIVERSE? YES NO
What I really want to do is create vast shining cities with no taxes and fabulous infrastructure. But when you start a new game, you have to lump everything together in close proximity, or the Sims won't move in. Can't be bothered to drive too far for work, the lazy bastards. Give them a subway line to the factory and they'll sit at home and watch the weeds grow. Well, I'll try again. I will give them a compact town and then, later, bulldoze it and build empty ceremonial boulevards ringed with fountains and monuments.
This game brings out the Albert Speer in me, I hate to say.
Part of the problem is that I insist on some sort of realism - i.e., I start the towns where a town ought to be started. On the mouth of the river, for example. This means long and hugely expensive rail and road connections to other towns (as with SimCity 2000, I hate those other towns; they're always growing faster than mine) and clumps of unsightly buildings near the beautiful ocean front property.
I'll keep playing, though, because it's just fabulous. Just wonderful. You have to laugh when you recall the first game, with its top-down perspective and 2-bit graphics, little black-ant traffic jams appearing and disappearing. The second version was spiffy, and a huge leap forward; this one is more incremental, but the details are magnificent. You can zoom down to see the Sims walking on the street; you hear dogs bark, see traffic accidents. Just wonderful. When one of my apartment buildings turned into a wreck, I half-expected to see crack addicts through the windows.
Back to try it again.

Later -
Much better. I've laid out a sensible city, and the grid will serve my megalomaniacal monument-building purposes well down the road.
This Bleat is cheating in another way - I am reviewing this game, so I will lift large chunks of this piece into the review. Tomorrow's news, today!
I tried to get this game at the computer store, but they didn't have it; acting on a recommendation I got today, I found it at . . . Wal-Mart. I really didn't want to go to Wal-Mart. I hate Wal-Mart. It's a big bright boot that has crunched a thousand downtowns under its heel, and I just plain hate the place. Shiny and messy and cluttered and - whoa, look at these prices!
Might as well stock up. I couldn't find a certain item, and was hesitant to ask a clerk - they're always going somewhere, doing something, wearing that harried service-economy expression, and I figure that it's better to apply a little initiative and find the item myself. But I coudn't find it, and was going to ask - when a squat brown-haired big-glasses stocker swung a broad hip into a display of Imposter fragrances, and knocked a dozen cans to the ground. I stopped and helped her pick them up. Ulterior motive: she owes me now.
"This is just not my DAY" she said to no one in particular.

"As long as I have you here," I said, putting a dented can of faux CK One on the shelf, "where can I find the sample sizes?" (I love sample sizes.)

"End-cap H&B A," she said, and walked away.

Wow. I knew what she meant: the end-cap is the rack at the end of an aisle, and H&B is Health and Beauty, and A presumably referred to the aisle. But I'm guessing that a little old lady might receive such instructions as if given the grid coordinates for Cydonia on Mars. There you have the difference between Wal-Mart and Target: at Wal-Mart, the clerks don't stop to think that the customer might not know industry lingo. No one at Target has ever told me to go to an end-cap. But at Wal-Mart the assumption seems to be that all the customers worked there once. Doesn't everyone do time in Sam's gulag?

Later -

Another city tumbles into ruins. I now remember what it was I hated about SimCity - all the tiny delicate tweaking, with each step having a salutary and negative consequence. Hey: I don't need a program to tell me that it's tough to run a city. This is like Quake, except that the first time you fire a weapon you're arrested and put in a holding cell.

There had better be cheats for this game, or I'm going to be very unhappy. I want to play it my way. I want to construct a perfect city financed with huge pots of money whose origin is diffuse and uncertain.

That's more realistic than anything the game provides.

Another day dueling with the service economy. This time it was my fault. I broke my own rule: I snapped at someone. Not that clerks don't deserve snapping sometimes; they do. But I'm Mr. Free & Easy here. I can walk around downtown singing ladedah, I can use the restroom when I want, I don't have to handle snot-soaked change or watch a toddler tip over a display; I don't have to restock, reshelve, say YESSIR, lock up, and drag my weary butt home on bus stuffed with sniffling commuters. I have things my own way 24-7, and snapping at someone stuck behind a counter is like kicking someone who's wearing leg irons.


There were 12 people in line at the bank, and the line was moving at the speed of a sumo wrestler pushing a grocery cart full of sumo wrestlers. I was next. As one does in these situations, I was swiveling my head from teller to teller, waiting for someone to wave me over. At one cage the teller seemed to be having a conversation with the customer - shooting the breeze. In fact he'd been shooting the breeze with the previous customer too; she'd laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and everyone shot them hot hate daggers: stop laughing! Go! Anyway, I thought perhaps the teller and customer were waiting for the computer to spit out some piece of paper. But the customer waved and wandered away - nothing changed hands. They'd just - been - talking while I WAITED.

"Next," the teller said to me. I glared, and said, in a voice sharper and louder than I'd expected:

"Are we done?"

What a prick. Naturally, the clerk adopted a silent mood of hatred and submissiveness, which made it even worse. I vowed I would be nicer to the next clerk I met.

The next clerk I met didn't make eye contact and slurred cannahepyou as she walked past.

Karma: quick, fast, simple.

Still playing SimCity3000. Another irritant: llamas. There must be some running in-joke in the Maxis team that insists on a minimum of ten llama references per game. Perhaps it's a reference to the Monty Python skit. Don't know. Don't care. It's annoying. The panel of advisors are annoying, too - they pop up from time to time with advice or demands, and each is a racial stereotype. It would be a heartening sign of racial progress in this country if the police chief was a white guy and the chief financial advisor was black.

A friend at work today noted that one of the cliches of our age future generations might find telling is the Lone Black in any commercial tableau. Companies like to assure everyone of their commitment to diversity by putting a black person in the picture, but it's always One. No more. I'd noticed while watching previews for Fox's animated show "The Family Guy" that the crowd of guys gathered to watch the Super Bowl contained One (1) black guy. Why not two? Or three? I mean, if everyone in a show is white except for one guy, it's a Mainstream show, but if everyone is black except for one white guy, it's an Urban show. Drives - me - nuts.

Well, this will be the last Bleat for a while: my calendar for early next week precludes sitting down at night at the accustomed hour. Hecticness ahead, but it will be fun, and I've have much to report. This is not a prelude to abandonment of the weekday updates, if anyone's worried - I just have ten tons of work to do and I know I'll have no time for this. Paying jobs come first. The Bleat resumes next Wednesday - see you then.